You might have heard of the terms Biblical theology and systematic theology. What is the difference? Shouldn’t all theology be Biblical?
Charles Price and Ian Randall explain it this way:
“The difference in approach between biblical theology and systematic theology is that whereas the former wrestles with the actual text of Scripture in its own immediate context, the latter seeks to establish a comprehensive framework from the whole of Scripture into which everything fits. Biblical theology allows the text of Scripture in any given situation to be bigger than the framework necessary to systematic theology” (Price and Randall, Transforming Keswick, p. 224).
The systematic theologian wants to develop a coherent teaching about a specific doctrine based on all the evidence of Scripture. Meanwhile, the Biblical theologian wants to understand the teaching of a specific book of the Bible, in its context, without necessarily worrying about whether it fits an overall theological system.
Which approach is better?
Since Scripture is inspired by a single Divine Mind, you should expect all Biblical truth to cohere in perfect agreement. You should be able to do both. The problem is not with God’s revelation, but with its fallible interpreters. Theologians make mistakes all the time, and the reality is that our theological systems do not always accurately reflect all that the Bible has to say on any given subject.
A classic example is the debate over John Calvin’s theory of atonement. In his systematic theology, he taught that Christ died for the elect alone (limited atonement). But in his commentaries, he seems to have taught in places that Christ died for all (unlimited atonement). You could say that five-point Calvinists prefer systematic theology, while four-point Calvinists prefer Biblical theology.
Every theologian faces that danger, including Free Grace ones. We build theological systems which, to the best of our ability, accurately reflect the teaching of many passages of Scripture, only to come across other verses that don’t quite fit. But before adjusting the system, we (rightly) try our hardest to explain them in a way that makes sense of the system. But if we’re honest, that does not always work. And if we realize that, the thing to do is to step back and adjust our systematic theology wherever necessary in light of the Biblical evidence.
If you have to choose between the two approaches, be Biblical.
Send your questions or comments to Shawn.
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